Do any of these frustrations expressed by association executives about board engagement sound familiar?

  • "The directors don't reply to my messages."
  • "Fewer than 50% show up for meetings."
  • "Nobody has read the bylaws."
  • "Directors mistakenly think their role is to direct and evaluate the staff."

If they do, try using the following techniques to increase understanding and participation.

Governance Adaptation

It used to be that directors were expected at frequent meetings, sometimes traveling hours to the destination. The pandemic has impacted governance in ways that might be better for the organization and volunteers.

Associations frowned on directors who asked if they could join the meeting by phone, rationalizing, "We need to see board members in person and read their body language." Since the pandemic, meeting frequency, formats and focus has changed. Organizations have mastered technology use. Today's agendas focus on the most vital issues, leaving off drudgery reports. Expect hybrid meeting formats to continue.

Brief is Better

In nearly every way, brevity is better. Volunteers respond best to brief committee assignments, brief reports, and brief meetings. Use bullets and infographics to communicate. Time is a valuable commodity. Mark Twain said, "If only I'd had more time, I'd have written a shorter letter."

Set an Altimeter

The governance altimeter reminds the board to stay at a level where they focus on strategy at an altitude of 50,000 feet and higher. Too often, boards delve into operational details or personnel matters.

Committees get their authority from the board, working at 25,000 feet. The staff is responsible for implementing decisions at 10,000 feet. Help volunteers soar by focusing on what they need to know rather than operational and administrative details. Stay out of the weeds.

Fiduciary and Trustee Roles

Not all board volunteers have knowledge of the responsibilities of serving as a fiduciary. Too many think the term fiduciary means they must raise money, rather than the proper reference to representing the interests of members. When told they serve as trustees of the corporation, they are confused thinking the association is simply a non-profit and they are only volunteers.

The board's fiduciary duty is to protect the organization's assets and to be prudent stewards of the members’ money. Annual orientation, dubbed "refresh and blend," helps the board understand their fiduciary roles.

Strategic Plan

Transform the plan it into a placemat for the board table, frequently asking, "How does this discussion advance our strategic plan?" Create a pop-up banner for the conference room displaying the mission and goals.

Integrate the plan's goals into the meeting agenda. Without a strategic plan, directors may wonder why they should attend. When it's woven into the fabric of the association's culture, the strategic plan keeps the board, committees and staff focused on the right things.

The Right People

When someone steps out of the meeting they return to hear, "We've made you the chair of a committee." Boards and committees perform best when they are comprised of dedicated, competent volunteers.

Regarding committees, rely on task forces and quick action teams to get the work done. Few have time to join a year-long standing committee. As for the board, the average size is 15 persons, allowing for meaningful conversation and accountability. If directors come from "chapters," ask them to only send persons who are fully trained in governance.

Agenda Design

It might seem like a small thing but when asked about agenda design you're likely to hear, "It's always been this way." Craft a board agenda that ties to the strategic plan. Reduce time listening to reports by distributing them in advance; it is a fiduciary duty to read reports before the meeting. Focus the agenda on the goals in the strategic plan. Include the mission statement on the agenda to frame discussions.

Know the Lanes

The four most important words of governance are, "Board governs, staff manage." Discourage directors from having interest in micromanagement or supervision. The board's purpose is to be strategic and visionary, advancing the mission and serving the membership. When board, committees or staff get out of their lanes, help them get back on the right track.

Associations rely on governing boards and volunteer committees. Use these ideas to elevate board engagement.